This past weekend I went to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, to see a Joseph Cornell retrospective, which I found extremely inspirational. In the galleries, I was torn by competing impulses: I wanted to absorb as much of Cornell’s metier as I possible could, but I also wanted to get out of the museum as soon as possible to get started on my own imitations of what he had done because his techniques—collage, rudimentary carpentry, cutting and pasting—seem so simple, approachable and accessible that seeing his work makes it seem easy to translate moments of artistic perception immediately into compelling pieces of art: just slap a few cool pictures cut out of magazines together in a little wooden box with some found objects—some sand, some watch faces, a few marbles and a some broken shot glasses—and then scratch some lines on them with a compass and a ruler, and voila! Semi-surreal mystery, an box that opens onto the imagination.
Of course, it is not as simple as all that: His work so carefully conceals the refinement involved that it makes it seem as though there isn’t any craft required, and that a meticulous apprenticeship in artistic technique may in fact stifle the conveyance of whatever aesthetic notion one has had. And those notions don’t come as easy as they seem to have come to Cornell. Looking at any retrospective makes it seem like a coherent body of ideas are just there to be seized, eliding over the time it takes for artists to grasp them, to know they are on to something. All the false starts and the stretches without inspiration become invisible.
A museum show—especially for an artist like Cornell, who is fixated on and works with everyday materials we are all familiar with—makes the barriers between conception and execution seem to disappear. A retrospective show also makes it seem second-nature to have absolute fixations on certain patterns of images, certain ideas: Cornell was interested in maps and ballerinas and penny arcade toys and the like, and the show makes it clear how fruitful those obsessions were for him artistically, but it only gives the faintest sense of what it’s like to be truly obsessed, to be cutting pictures of dancers out of magazines and collecting a garage’s worth of scrap metal and discarded machine parts, to be rummaging continually at second hand shops not with a mind to make art so much as a predilection to be haunted by vague connections you sense in the refuse and that you long to tease out but can only begin to by perpetual accumulation, by making oneself the sole point of contiguity between a vast array of disparate quotidian flotsam and jetsam and bearing that enormous burden while trying to formulate and maintain the connections in your head. Cornell’s work seems to be the output from that process, and it’s all alive with the energy of that peculiarly focused curiosity.
At the museum, I felt as though it was a cinch that I could go out and experience that same curiosity in how I look at the humdrum stuff around me. I could just start taking pictures of stuff with my digital camera, and the underlying strangeness in the world would just automatically manifest itself, and reason that things that catch my attention would suddenly become palpable and my excitement immediately transferable to other people. Intriguing juxtapositions would just occur to me in the process of putting together pieces to show people, a process which would of course bring about no anxiety and would go as smoothly as breathing or getting laughs out of watching Trailer Park Boys, and require as much conscious deliberation. At the museum, it seemed impossible that I wouldn’t leave and begin that process, begin making that effort to make tangible, powerful, enduring records of my passing curiosities.
But that sort of excitement and eagerness may just be the experiential good of being at the show, the fantasy it evokes so powerfully in spectators. Consuming Cornell’s work inspires the satisfying notion that making art can seem almost inevitable, a by-product of a life lived well. But this pleasant notion is an illusion, an effect achieved by the finished product about the process that yielded it. Looking at his pieces, one consumes an idealized notion of how it is to live as an artist without having to experience any of the arduousness of creation, or having to acknowledge that it exists. And as a bonus, it vindicates everyday life, making it seem as though its mysteriousness is self-evident, that it requires no effort to find the mystery, when in fact discovering mystery in the ordinary is hard work, requiring total commitment to one’s idiosyncrasies to the point where one become inscrutable to one’s acquaintances.
Still, one of the most impressive things in the show (for me, anyway) was a series of homemade faux newsletters about poultry farming Cornell made to amuse his siblings or cousins (I should have taken some notes while I was there). We don’t know if they were actually amused, but it was impossible to miss the sense of humor on display there—a delight in the good-natured fatuousness of those with extremely narrow interests combined with an appreciation for the pretentiousness inherent in print publication. There was probably some condescension toward rural life, as well, but nothing malicious, just a sense that poultry farming could be used as a focal point to organize as many mysteries of the universe as avant-garde painting or academic philosophizing, and in a way that makes you laugh. So perhaps his idiosyncrasies didn’t make him entirely antisocial and inscrutable; one still imagines, though, that he must have spent a lot of time alone, a lot of time compensating for that loneliness by trying to understand social phenomena (the fame of actresses and their specific sexual allure; the invention of nostalgia) drawing only on the intensity of his solitary experience and reaction to such things, and on what he could imagine and infer.
Most people’s obsessions tend not to haunt them so, and a desire to be like Cornell won’t suddenly give them that transformative intensity. Ordinary people tend not to have the same quotient of desperation in their curiosity. But people like to think that curiosity doesn’t have that dark, obsessional side to it, and that it’s waiting for them if they would choose to indulge in it. After the Cornell show, I had this strong feeling that interesting images and ideas were just lying around everywhere, and all I needed to do was stoop to notice, and I could feel creative. It gave the impression that it was simply a matter of focusing, that being an artist was mainly a matter of identifying the mysteriousness of what already exists. Another of the shows at the museum, “Accidental Mysteries,” an exhibit of snapshots that accidentally captured something interesting or supernatural-seeming, extended that notion to its logical conclusion, removing the artist’s intentionality from the equation altogether in favor of “vernacular photography”:
Vernacular photography refers to images taken for personal use: family portraits, travel albums, holiday photos and more. Many of the photographs contain accidental double exposures or other darkroom mistakes, creating unintentionally idiosyncratic compositions. Viewed outside their intended context, the snapshots take on the reflections of the viewer, who is left to ponder the mysterious circumstances in which these photographs came to be.
Thus you, the spectator, become the real artist, the one with the aesthetic vision and intention. And all you have to do is look, because (through the clever machinations of the curator and the museum) you transcend the ordinary and vernacular yourself, having been wrenched out of everyday in order to perceive its magic. (Found magazine works on the same premise.) These photos are not art objects until we (well, curators anyway) bring our advanced viewpoint to them—which is extremely flattering for audiences. And it’s comforting for us too because there’s no possible way we can be accused of misunderstanding what the artist meant. There’s no way we can get it wrong.
Does that mean that it’s merely pseudo-art, giving lazy audiences an easy and merely superficial aesthetic experience, one that consumes itself quickly and leaves no lasting impression? It does allow audiences to elude the problem of worrying about artists in bad faith—those making ego art or “selling out.” Artists can’t have bad intentions if they had no intentions. And it isolates an elusive thing—a pure accident—and makes it unmistakably present, and that’s a satisfying thing to behold. And we can learn something about what curators and others find interesting in an accidental photo—they get to convey an aesthetic vision (what compositions are interesting, what subjects and framing effects are compelling, etc.) by an editing process rather than constructive, creative process. It vindicates the view of art as being essentially editorial (or conceptual), a matter of recognizing cool stuff and filtering given material down rather than a matter of rigorously building up some particular technique or approach, of ceaseless revising and refining until one has got something right, whatever “right” may happen to be.
But other artists can’t evaluate the work in terms of the choices someone made, so it offers them virtually nothing: They can’t take anything away from such art without falling into bad faith; one can’t plan for the effect of accidentalness without presenting audiences with something substantially different that the true vernacular pieces give. They would just be faking it, like pretend folk or outsider artists. So vernacular art is art for people who refuse to “give in” to artists’ calculated manipulations, who want no sense that someone else can plan something in advance to make them feel something specific and predictable. Vernacular art has the effect of seeming to preserve the audience’s sense of its own spontaneity—safe from an artist’s machinations and intentions. But then, the curators already had that planned, which is why they organized the exhibit in the first place.
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